What is the price of an environmentalist’s vote?
Photo: Tar Sands ActionThe Obama administration has decided to delay a decision on the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline until after the 2012 election. This is only a temporary, inadequate victory, but an extraordinary achievement for the thousands of grassroots activists who put ourselves on the line. It’s also clear evidence for the environmental movement that directly targeting President Obama works, and probably works better than any other strategy. (Kudos especially to 350.org, Bill McKibben, Friends of the Earth, and Bold Nebraska’s Jane Kleeb.)
As amazing as this progress is, however, let’s not delude ourselves: President Obama is just kicking the climate can down the road to a point when he may not even be in a position to decide its fate. In the not-unlikely scenario that he loses reelection, approving the tar-sands pipeline will be an easy way for President Romney to give Big Oil a huge thank-you gift for all the help they provide him during the 2012 election. This decision just postpones a green light for the pipeline by a year. And it’s unclear to what extent the administration is really reconsidering the pipeline, or just reconsidering the poorly chosen pipeline route.
That’s why I’m a little dismayed at suggestions that this kick-the-can decision means environmentalists will enthusiastically back President Obama in 2012. Is the price of an environmentalist’s vote a year’s delay on environmental catastrophe? Excuse me, no.
Let’s remember what was different about this tar-sands campaign from too many failed efforts to get President Obama to defy the fossil-fuel industry: direct targeting of President Obama and no shyness about charging the administration with corruption where it existed.
We cannot abandon that tough approach, even as the administration throws us a bone. Shifting the pipeline route is helpful, but it doesn’t get at the bigger problem that exploiting the tar sands is a climate catastrophe and deadly to millions of acres of boreal forests and their songbirds. The fuse on the tar-sands carbon bomb was just made a year longer, but let’s not forget that it’s still burning.
And let’s not forget that despite quite positive moves on fuel efficiency, the Obama administration weekly announces what RL Miller has called mini-Keystones: under-the-radar greenlighting of major fossil-fuel projects, like a coal mine on public land outside Bryce Canyon, Utah; massive expansion of offshore drilling; failing to regulate coal ash sufficiently; letting coal plants off the hook on water use.
In other words, the climate crisis is still spinning out of control, and Obama is seeking to split the difference. Unfortunately, splitting the difference doesn’t work when you’re dealing with planetary physics. It’s getting a lot hotter out there, more species are dying, more states are bursting into flames, and more countries are drowning in floods. Obama’s instinctual conflict avoidance just isn’t going to cut it when it comes to the existential task of saving the planet. We can’t let him forget that.